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It’s all in the sequencing

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-06-2017 Rajrishi Singhal

Public policy discussions globally have often debated the role and sequencing of regulatory reforms in the series of structural changes necessary for introducing market dynamics to state-controlled economies. In India, post 1991 reforms, this critical issue was not adequately deliberated; worse, the government’s piecemeal approach to reforms and policy planners’ disregard for prioritizing regulatory reform inevitably led to regulatory capture and crony capitalism.

The demonetisation exercise is another pertinent example of how non-systemic reforms, without preceding regulatory reform, lead to chaos and economic dislocation. The withdrawal of 86% currency overnight was accompanied by a steady stream of shifting narratives: launched initially to curtail counterfeiting and currency hoarding, the objective soon segued to facilitating a digital payments infrastructure. But the lack of any planning before introducing this coercive shock, or the absence of preparatory infrastructure build-up and roll-out, has nullified all initial benefits.

Digital payments values and volumes went up between 8 November and 31 December 2016 because people had no other options. A recent research report from securities firm Motilal Oswal estimates that digital payments reduced substantially by May. For example, Motilal Oswal’s calculations show cumulative value of transactions across all digital payments channels during May at Rs111.55 trillion, down from the December 2016 peak of Rs131.45 trillion. The report disregards the Rs180.73 trillion spike during March, attributed primarily to seasonal phenomena.

Even a senior executive from the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) was quoted in this newspaper as saying the December spike in digital payments had ebbed by April.

So, what has demonetisation achieved? Observers cite two tangible, but divergent, results: a political victory through electoral gains in Uttar Pradesh and deepening agricultural distress leading to widespread farmer unrest. While there is no detailed, granular research linking demonetisation and these two outcomes, there is one noteworthy collateral benefit though: casting a wider net exposes the asymmetrical regulatory landscape in the payments and settlement ecosystem.

Soon after demonetisation, the Ratan Watal committee on digital payments advanced its deadlines and rushed through its report submission. Another committee of chief ministers was set up by Niti Aayog under Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu. This committee spawned another committee for digital payments security under IT secretary Aruna Sundararajan. Niti Aayog has set up another committee helmed by chief executive officer Amitabh Kant to “enable 100% conversion of government-citizen transactions to the digital platform”. Meanwhile, the ministry of electronics and information technology (Meity) has issued its own guidelines to facilitate adoption of electronic payments and receipts for various government services. Before all this, in June 2016, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had set up an inter-regulatory working group on fintech and digital payments, though the fate of this committee is not yet known. Besides, demonetisation also occasioned a host of other private reports.

Predictably, such a surfeit of committees and reports has led to overlaps and repetition. A cursory reading might even give the idea that committees are competing among themselves to say the same things. However, the burst of reports and recommendations in the first flush of demonetisation seems to have petered out: nobody seems to be listening and there doesn’t seem to be any urgency to implement many of the suggestions.

For example, the Watal committee’s recommendation of carving payments regulation out of RBI’s jurisdiction and making it into an independent body met with resistance from the central bank; eventually, finance minister Arun Jaitley announced the setting up of a payments regulatory board in his 2017-18 Budget speech (to replace the existing Board for Regulation and Supervision of Payment and Settlement Systems, or BPSS) on the lines suggested by the committee, but with one critical exception: the board will have three members from RBI and an equal number from the government, thereby diluting its independent status.

Many other skews in the regulatory architecture have been pointed out but remain unresolved. For example, as owner and operator of the retail digital payments network, the NPCI is a provider of critical infrastructure; but, simultaneously, it also competes with users by pushing its own payment products and services. In addition, its entire equity capital is owned by 56 banks, which automatically puts non-bank payment service providers at a distinct disadvantage and raises questions of infrastructure neutrality.

There is also complete silence on how the digital payments universe and its regulators will foster competition, encourage innovation and design a regulatory framework to protect consumers. Currently, allowing only banks to access the payments network—and denying that to non-banks—seems to be the default regulatory design.

The attention of policy planners and administrators might have been temporarily diverted to the other elephant in the room: goods and services tax, which goes live from 1 July. But, GST’s success is also predicated on a robust and secure digital payments network; an ad hoc digital payments network spells only provisional success for GST.

Rajrishi Singhal is a consultant and former editor of a leading business newspaper. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.

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